Chapter 1: A Little Trouble in Little China
Had I known I was going to be forced into an unwanted ‘vacation’ halfway around the world, I’d have worn a more comfortable pair of shoes. There are two types of men in the world: men who wear sneakers to dinner, and men—like me—who don’t. I was headed to Boston’s Chinatown for a bite, alone, and in damn fine company. Normally, I’d have worn a pair of boaters—it was early and Chinatown’s rather informal—but I eschewed even those in favor of my cinnamon Allen Edmonds wingtips, a steal from Filene’s Basement a few years earlier during their going-out-of-business sale. They’ll probably still be in style when I wear them twenty years from now. Filene’s used to be an institution in both Boston and Baltimore—the two cities I’ve called home over the decades of my life. The store’s mark-down basement is the prime reason I’ve been able to dress in Armani and Ralph Lauren on a private eye’s budget. Feline’s is ancient history now. Damn shame.
My home these days is Baltimore, where I retired from the Office of Inspector General, OIG for short. I was in Boston for the weekend to catch an Oriels game against the Red Sox. Spent half my career as a Fed with the OIG in Boston, the other half in Baltimore, so I find it hard to decide which team to root for when they’re on the field together. OIG had me on the road a lot, investigating fraud cases all over the east quarter of the country. Since getting out, I’ve become kind of a homebody. The steady pension of a retired Fed pays the rent, but it doesn’t keep you from getting bored. That’s why I set up shop as a private eye. A guy’s got to have something to do, and shuffleboard was never my thing.
Most of the work I do is pretty cut and dry. Get the skinny on my distant husband. Is my wife marriage material or divorce potential? Can you tell me where my long-lost kid is? I get gigs from law firms, referrals, and the occasional Craigslist post. My turf is Boston, Baltimore, and everywhere in between.
From time to time, these seemingly little cases can grow into bigger things, like threats from the followed party, or the unearthing of things not anticipated; what was expected to be infidelity may in fact be embezzlement, or even murder. I’ve always had a knack for solving puzzles and get a real kick out of a solved case. Why buy a jigsaw puzzle when you can work on figuring real cases?
I took the T from Southie, steppeThed onto the Orange Line platform, and transferred to the Blue Line. I walked the final mile or so to No. 1 Noodle House. Boston has a transient feeling, old buildings intermingled with new skyscrapers and newer signs. I can appreciate new architecture, but always gravitate toward the classics. That’s probably why I yearned, that night, for cuisine that’s been around for thousands of years. A good bowl of Chinese noodles always hits the spot.
The sun was just going down and the lights were just coming up as I passed under the green-shingled paifang—the traditional Chinese arch that marks the entrance of Chinatown—at the intersection of Beach and Surface. Red and pink neon Chinese characters flashed along Washington Avenue, and made me feel I was actually on the other side of the globe. But only for a moment; a famous, white politician with his female, Indian assistant jollying up to a group of black businessmen—probably potential donors—broke the illusion before it could take hold. This place was more melting pot than noodle bowl.
Not to mention the Romanesque Hayden Building and nearby luxury housing skyscrapers with their urban American-ness. I realized that Big China probably had the same eyesores. God knows they have their share of KFCs and Micky D’s in Asia, and I’ve read that China employs about half of the world’s cranes in their efforts to build, build, build. The rest of humanity is as fatally attracted to fast, disposal “new culture” as we are stateside. To hell with tradition, society seems to say in progress’s onward march.
I found my way to No. 1 Noodle House, a little joint in an alley off Washington, famous for the noodle man in the window. You’d miss the place if you weren’t looking for it. I’d been to this hole-in-the-wall a hundred times before, and, as usual, the Chinese noodle master was on duty in the front display window, pounding his dough and stretching out noodles as white as snowy egrets. Yellowed newspaper and magazine reviews framed the edges of the window. Best noodles in Boston, Best duck in the birthplace of democracy, On every Boston bucket list, Top 10 Places to Eat in Boston’s Chinatown, and the like.
The noodle man smiled, as men do when caught doing what they do best. Then, his eyes darted to my left, just behind me, and before I could turn to look, something sharp, hard, and cold jabbed into my back. I stiffened, then lowered my body ever-so-slightly and swiveled to the right, using my elbow to knock the man off balance. I brought my leg back to knock his legs out from under him. I completed the rotation of my body and stood up over the felled assailant, elbows out, edge of my palms poised like chopping weapons from No. 1 Noodle House’s kitchen.
When I saw who it was, I huffed out my annoyance, dusted off my suit, and tsked over the scuff marks on my polished wingtips. “Damn it, Salvador! You know better than to sneak up on me like that! I could have hurt you.”
Salvador was a big man, 250 pounds of amiable ex-heroin addict. The only reason he was out on the street was because our mutual friend, Mark, Mark made him promise the judge he would go to anger management and rehab, which confirmed the judge’s belief that criminals could be rehabilitated. Salvador was on an elephant-sized dosage of Valium, which he’d told me helped keep his anger in check more effectively than his shrink, a bizarre slice of cheesecake who drove him crazy because of her racy attire.
Salvador made his way clumsily to his feet. “I have a bad back, Clive. Not to mention my bum knee. You should be more careful.”
“Don’t go around poking people like that. You’ll land yourself back in the slammer.”
Salvador put his hands on his lower back, slipping them through the elastic band of his yoga pants, and cracked it. “I just wanted to say hello.”
“Well.” I softened my tone, “Hello.” Salvador was actually a decent person, one of those guys who’d probably have turned out fine if he’d had just one good break somewhere along the line. “How you doing?”
I cracked a smile. “That’s a pretty low bar.”
“Yeah, but it don’t leave much room for disappointment.”
I knew what he meant. “What are you doing in this part of town?”
Salvador pointed to the noodle man in the window. “Looking to get ducky. That a crime?”
“No crime. You still seeing Mark?” The former Boston cop I shared information with in my OIG days was Salvador’s parole officer.
“That asshole? He keeps telling me I got to piss for him, but then he cancels. I haven’t seen him in weeks. I know he’s just setting me up. You know? He’s going to ambush me. Make me piss after months of making me think he never follows through with it.”
I frowned at him. “Would that be bad, if he surprised you with a test?”
“Nah, I’m clean,” he said, patting his belly. “Only the legal stuff.”
I figured he was telling the truth. If he’d been on heroin he’d have been a helluva lot skinnier.
Salvador shrugged. “I don’t know, maybe I’m just being paranoid. Mark’s Mark. You know?”
I nodded. We stared into the No. 1 Noodle House window where the noodle master was stretching, pulling, slamming dough on the wooden cutting board.
“That guy’s is like the Zen master of noodles.” Salvador laughed. “His noodles are like crack.” His face went cold, like he’d misspoken. “Not that I like crack or anything.”
I smiled and looked down at Salvador’s dirty, white sneakers. The line between the law and the outlaws has always interested me—ever since the day I became an investigator and well into my days as a private detective. I’ve known plenty of bad cops. More good ones, of course. But enough bad ones—and enough good ex-cons—that I no longer think a person’s born good or evil. Just look at one of my favorite shows, The Wire. Some of the cons had a stronger code of ethics and discipline than some of the cops. The distinction is how equipped you are to resist temptation. We all have our methods to keep temptation at bay, and my method—successful so far—has always been keeping to myself and not getting polluted by the weaknesses of others. I have a strict policy to not fraternize with criminals or parolees. That meant dinner alone.
Salvador motioned his chin toward the door. “You going in?”
I looked up from his dangling shoelace and sighed. “Yeah, come on.”